Yes, you can legally live in your car, van, RV, tent, clay pot, or cardboard box. But the reality is that doing van life without hassle is much more fucking complicated. Here's why.
Why Van Life Is Legal
No U.S. federal, state, or local law absolutely requires American citizens or residents to have a physical address, that is, to either own or rent real estate.
Vandwellers have all the rights and obligations as any other American.
We must pay taxes and obey laws. We have the right to vote, get federal and state benefits, own personal property, and generally pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
We can live in a van down by the river if we goddamn well please!
Why Do People Think Vandwelling Is Illegal?
For a good reason. Plenty of laws and regulations make being "homeless," not having and sleeping at a physical address, a pain. These laws make living in your vehicle illegal in effect. Wankers!
What? Am I contradicting myself?
No. We still have the absolute right to live in our cars, vans, RVs, tents, whatever. We're just presented with certain problems that curtail our goddamn freedom. Big fucking time.
Problem 1 – Bureaucrats Require an Address
Try to get a driver's license without an address. Try to get government benefits without an address. Try to register to vote without an address. It's tricky.
Yes, you're entitled to these things without an address. In the case of voting and federal benefits, such as Social Security and SNAP, the government specifically requires the states to find ways to accommodate those without addresses, i.e., the homeless. Usually states do so by allowing the homeless to use the address of a relative, shelter, or social services office.
Nomads with more means – vandwellers, OTR truckers, retired RV lifestylers, traveling salespeople – usually fudge by using the address of a friend or relative. Or we use the address of a private mailbox service, like a UPS store or a mail forwarder, e.g., Traveling Mailbox.
But of course, using a fudge address is technically illegal. There's always the risk some fucking bureaucrat will put your balls in the vice over it. Not likely, they usually don't check, but it's enough to make you nervous.
Problem 2 – Cities Don't Let You Park Overnight
OK, most of us fucking get that we can't park on private land without permission. But shouldn't we be able to park on public land, "the commons"? After all, we're co-owners.
That's where we get fucked over again. Plenty of cities have laws forbidding you to park overnight on particular bits of public land:
- Can't overnight in parks
- Can't overnight on busy streets and highways
- Can't overnight in front of businesses
- Can't overnight in neighborhoods
- Can't overnight in government parking lots
- Can't overnight by rivers and under bridges
So where the fuck are the public lands where you can park overnight? And with this fucked-up patchwork of laws, varying from town to town, how are you supposed to know when and where you can park? You've also got to worry about other laws, like no loitering.
Even when you're parked legally, the cops sometimes fuck with you anyway because ... because they can.
Yes, most national forests and many state forests permit dispersed camping, but that does you no good if you're in town or an urban vandweller. Not a lot of jobs in the forest.
Problem 3 – Parking Lots Are Usually Private
Most big parking lots are owned by stores or landlords. Huge mall and strip mall parking lots might feel like public space, but they're not. End of story.
What About Our FREEDOM to Live in a Van?
Dictionary definition: "Freedom: the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint."
So while we have the right to pursue van life, we too often are legally hindered and restrained from doing so. A freedom is no goddamn use if you can't exercise it.
From a practical, everyday perspective, while vandwelling is legal and our right, we have to break a lot of petty laws and regulations to do so. Exercising our freedom is being criminalized. And that's bullshit.
Federal, state, and local governments are unreasonably tramping on our legal right to live in a van down by the river. But the governments' unreasonable constraints on van life won't change without a lot of lobbying and court battles.